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French Forum 28.3 (2003) 85-100

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The Seer (Un)Seen
Michel Leiris's China

Alex Hughes
University of Birmingham

Addressing the love affair that French thinkers sustained with China in the twentieth century,1 Jean Chesneaux remarks that China "met a basic aspiration amongst French left-wing intellectuals, which I would describe as political exoticism, that is, the tendency to look for a political homeland and model of reference in distant, exotic countries."2 The best-known manifestation of the orientalist phenomenon that Chesneaux invokes is the engouement for all things Maoist displayed in the 1970s by elite radical groupings such as the Tel Quel theorists, whose "mythologies chinoises," enshrined in special numbers of their journal (cf. Spring 1972, Autumn 1974), are well-documented.3 However, as Chesneaux affirms, Maoist China was also chic in French cultural life of the 1950s and 1960s,4 and the mid-century moment—a moment for much of which France did not extend diplomatic recognition to the government of the prc—witnessed a plethora of voyages en Chine undertaken by French luminaries in the wake of the Bandung conference of May 1955. That conference spawned the invitation famously proffered to the West by Zhou Enlai, ventriloquized by the French journalist Robert Guillain, who acted on it, in the following terms: "La Chine est ouverte aux visiteurs. Venez voir!"5 Amongst those whom Zhou's exhortation to scopic encounter and witness-bearing brought to China were Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. And, like the writings of other Western intellectuals who went on "political pilgrimages" to the prc and sought to remedy Western misconceptions about its regime,6 Beauvoir's La Longue Marche (1957) amply illustrates her determination to look upon newly communist China and find it good.

Traveling at the same time as Beauvoir and Sartre was Michel Leiris, who spent five weeks in China in late 1955 as part of a délégation [End Page 85] de l'Association des amitiés franco-chinoises, received by the Institut populaire des Affaires étrangères de Pékin. Leiris's Chinese experiences generated two life-writing texts: his Journal de Chine (1994), a China-centered composite of carnets de route which was neither published in toto during Leiris's lifetime nor evolved into the "livre sur la Chine populaire" he had wanted and felt unable to produce on his return to Europe, and which appeared after his death in an edition prepared by Jean Jamin; and Fibrilles (1966), a more formal, more introspective, and much more densely woven exercise in autobiographical, self-centered portraiture, which constituted the third volume of Leiris's autobiographical cycle La Règle du jeu and looks back on his Chinese travels and their aftermath.7 These Leirisian life-writings depict a mid-century China where surveillance—overseeing—was squarely the lot of the foreign visitor, whose movements were dictated and constrained by planned and policed itineraries.8 They speak of a revolutionary nation in relation to which French intellectuals and journalists were vying to cast themselves as the most enlightened "seers" of—commentators on—the modern Chinese regime, and were engaging in heated polemics over how that regime should be viewed.9 Moreover, taken in tandem, the Journal de Chine and Fibrilles articulate a drama of seeing and being (un)seen played out by and for Leiris in Chinese space during his "voyage au pays de l'avenir radieux."10 That drama turned, I shall propose here, on ethical, ocular engagement and visual exclusion/non-recognition. It is the key object of scrutiny of the analysis elaborated in what follows: an analysis that seeks to bring insight to bear upon Leiris's adventures in the Chinese field of vision.

Looking in the Journal de Chine

I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking. [... ] Some day, all this will have to be developed, carefully printed, fixed11
Christopher Isherwood, A Berlin Diary

Pursued in the company of noteworthy players on the mid-century French cultural stage such as Armand Gatti, Paul Ricoeur, and Chris Marker, the "programme...


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